Village people

Village people

When Brodsworth Colliery closed in 1992, the community spirit of nearby Woodlands in Doncaster was seemingly lost forever. But as the finest example of a workers’ village in Britain celebrates its centenary, Lee Gale discovers that a little yellow booklet has locals talking to each other again 

Yorkshire Post, 2007

“Hello love, June’s ill!” shouts Helen, 83. “Is she?” blasts Laura, 82. “Oh dear!” Mere yards separate these women but by the volume of their conversation you’d think they were on opposite banks of a canal. It’s 6.30pm on Saturday in Woodlands – bingo night at the Welfare Hall – and hundreds of women (mainly pensioners) are threading their way through the streets of this former pit village to scoop £5 for a line, £20 for a full house and £100 for the flyer at the end of the night. Bingo is king round these parts.

Apart from OAPs, few of the 12,000 residents of Woodlands are braving the elements. Freezing fog is forecast in this northern extremity of Doncaster so most people are sitting in front of the TV with a hot drink watching Harry Hill’s TV Burp. “Nippy in’t it, Brian?” a man calls out of the darkness. “That’s why I’ve put me big coat on,” comes the reply. In the distance, the relentless ring of 50cc chicken-chaser scooters can be heard, while on an expanse of grass behind the red-brick bingo venue, just visible in the gloom, stand a group of teenagers, some wearing caps, swigging from a bottle. “They’ll be up to no good,” Helen expresses. Laura agrees: “It gets blummin’ worse round ’ere.” Woodlands has seen better days.

“It’s a tough place to live,” admits local vicar Stephen Gardner. “If you look at the statistics for this area, in terms of health and deprivation it’s similar to inner-city Sheffield. One of the hardest times was the miners’ strike in 1984-85 – it was awful. I was at school here, then. People literally didn’t know where the next meal was coming from. That had a big impact on this community, and there are some long memories. But when I talk about the strike locally, the one thing they remember is how they helped each other.”

It’s difficult to romanticise about Woodlands. It’s always been rough. Even before the decline of the village, a lone child on foot walking the quarter-mile length of Welfare Road would invariably face two or three threats of physical violence. Nevertheless, before the strike, Woodlands was an attractive community, well-maintained by miners whose green fingers would put Percy Thrower to shame. There were so many greenhouses that every summer there was a surplus of tomatoes. Grandads reared budgies and pigeons in aviaries, while those too frail to look after their gardens hired goats and horses to nibble at grass. It was a common sight to see women sweeping not only their paths but the pavement in front of their house. People said, “How do,” when passing and neighbours genuinely looked out for each other. Community spirit was second nature.

September 7th 1992 was a defining moment, a wretched day bringing to an end 85 years of production at Brodsworth Colliery. Situated to the west of the village, “Broddy” was one of the country’s largest pits, employing over 4,000 at its peak. When the colliery closed, Woodlands went into freefall. Community spirit, an important ingredient in any pit village, evaporated. Crime replaced comradeship, and as the respectable older miners moved away or died out, rougher elements were quick to take their place. Sheds were ritually robbed and if you owned a motorbike, the safest place to keep it was in your bedroom. Doncaster suffered massively with the demise of coalmining, but rather than gain national sympathy the town became a joke. The Nineties couldn’t end quickly enough. But where there’s decline, rejuvenation follows – it’s just taking longer than expected in Woodlands.

“I came here in December 1993, when I retired from the Metropolitan Police,” says Barry Hayes, 59, editor of The Brodsworth Informer, a free, A5 newspaper delivered throughout Woodlands and close neighbour Adwick-Le-Street. “This was the cheapest place in the country to buy property. We liked the house. I didn’t have to do a thing to it other than put in a power shower.”

Hayes, feet up in his living room, with a laptop computer warming his thighs, is something of a celebrity in Woodlands. An old hand at community newsletters – his neighbourhood watch handout in Chingford in the early Eighties reached 27,000 homes – Hayes started the Informer in 2002 with the assistance of a £300 GlobalGrant fund. His 12-page publication covering village events and local history is popped through letterboxes every other month (“although we won’t deliver if there’s a dog in the garden”). With its easily-identifiable yellow cover, the Informer is a coffee-table regular, as much a feature of Woodlands as the 280ft spire on All Saints Church.

“I chose Woodlands because it’s an ex-mining village,” adds Hayes. “Having lived in the Rhondda, I knew if there was a mine there was community spirit. I thought that would be the case in Woodlands because when I moved here the pit had only been closed a year. But it wasn’t. This pit closed and within three months there was nothing. The only thing I can put it down to is the fact that the men at Brodsworth were fiercely proud this was the ‘Royal pit’, the colliery that supplied the palaces. Every ex-miner I’ve interviewed has said to me, ‘Tha knows it’s the Royal pit, don’t you, lad? We dug the Royal coal.’ They were so shocked the Queen could allow this to happen that overnight community spirit disappeared.”

As a southerner and retired London copper, Hayes should be shunned. During the strike, his Met colleagues were bussed in their hundreds up the M1 to quell riots on Yorkshire picket lines. An over-zealous use of the truncheon caused many broken ribs in Doncaster, yet Hayes transcends criticism. “Barry’s alright,” people say. Through The Brodsworth Informer, Hayes is helping to rebuild community spirit, a fact he’s very proud of. His pro-active interest in local affairs is instilling a sense of pride that’s been absent since the Eighties – and he’s managing this without payment.

As Woodlands’ vicar, 36-year-old Stephen Gardner picks up a paycheque for his efforts, but that’s not to say his contribution is less significant than Hayes’. Unlocking the door to the imposing, red-brick All Saints with its Saturn V spire, Gardner, wearing a maroon, green and navy panelled shirt, doesn’t appear your regular man of God. “I’m not a black-wearing vicar,” he explains.

Gardner attended secondary school in Woodlands, but has only been back in the parish for 18 months. Woodlands is a religious outpost, not a glamorous pull, holding the same attraction as Matabeleland in the 19th century. Prior to Gardner’s arrival, All Saints was without a reverend for over two years.

“Before I moved here I was told there was a big drugs problem and difficulties with anti-social behaviour,” Gardner explains, “but since I’ve lived in Woodlands I haven’t seen evidence of that. I know there’s a drugs issue but it’s not all-consuming. I don’t see the issues we have here being much different to other villages around the country, even in leafy suburbs. One of the main problems is not unemployment but poor employment. People are working long hours on minimum wage, working their hearts out to support families.”

All Saints is positioned at the edge of The Squares, a downtrodden estate incorporating large “squares” of greenery. These open spaces were once an oasis for miners who’d spent up to 16 hours underground, but now act as easy escape routes for errant teens on motorbikes. Despite the church’s less-than-favourable position, Gardner is a proud homeowner and gives a guided tour of the chilled nave.

“I hear a lot of people say that when the pit shut, it tore the soul out of the community,” Gardner continues, taking a seat. “Five years ago I might have agreed with you. Actually living here now I think it’s probably too drastic a statement. It certainly wounded to the core this community. I don’t want to underplay the affect that closing Brodsworth Colliery had on this village, but I don’t think it tore the soul out. There’s still a soul, a sense that people want this to be a lively, alive village.”

Exactly 100 years ago, the first bricks of Woodlands’ workers’ cottages were being laid. The 120 spacious, three- and four-bedroom houses in The Park would look out onto a 24-acre green and a selection of towering trees descended from the mighty Barnsdale Forest – Robin Hood’s real home. Compared to the cramped, terraced slums miners endured in other northern districts, Woodlands was a dreamland.

It was Arthur Markham, Brodsworth Colliery’s owner, who made the unusual step of offering his employees a utopian existence. Markham, whose family ran Markham Colliery in Chesterfield, was MP for Mansfield and grandson of Sir Joseph Paxton who’d designed Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851. A philanthropist as well as industrialist, Markham believed fit, clean workers living in decent accommodation would make him wealthier in the long run. To bring his idea to life, Markham contracted renowned architect Percy Bond Houfton, also from Chesterfield, to draw up plans. Houfton was to create the most impressive workers’ village ever seen in Britain, a settlement so grand that King George V felt compelled to visit in 1912. Yet few have ever heard of the place.

Houfton was a keen exponent of the Garden Cities ideal. In 1896, he developed Bolsover Colliery’s model village of Creswell in Derbyshire, whose houses formed a double octagon around a central green. In 1905, he scooped top prize in the Cheap Cottages Exhibition at Letchworth (the world’s first garden city), while 41 of his workers’ houses were included in Sheffield’s Flower Estate, a whole village made for the 1907 Yorkshire And North Midland Cottage Exhibition. But Woodlands, with its 19 styles of cottages, would prove Houfton’s greatest accomplishment.

To encourage a positive community attitude, Markham’s model village incorporated 12 grassy squares. The Park’s incredible acreage was deemed excessive, so cottages in phase two – The Squares – back onto significantly smaller fields. Children could play freely in these enclosed spaces, but more importantly over “the backs” a shared responsibility grew among workers’ wives. An injured miner could expect to be nursed to fitness by anything up to 20 women.

The cottages were astoundingly plush for their time and miners flooded from across the country to taste industrial honey. Homes even boasted a flushing toilet, a complete novelty for the labour force taking residence. Soon, signs had to be erected declaring: “Due to numerous stoppages in the drains caused by tenants putting floor cloths, rags, bones & other solid matter down the closet pans, notice is hereby given that any stoppage to the drains attributable to this cause will have to be paid for by the tenant.” Practice made perfect.

Although Charles Thellusson at nearby Brodsworth Hall was the local squire, Markham was king in Woodlands. The model village turned into his personal fiefdom, with Markham taking up residence at John Holt Cottage by the gated entrance to The Park. Here, he’d sit on the kerb and invite passing miners to take a bottle of beer from a crate and discuss goings-on at the pit. For the price of a brown ale, King Arthur gained a unique workers’ insight.

Markham influenced every aspect of village life, providing tenants with a strict code of conduct. It was an ingenious system of control but few complained; to lose their precious cottage would have been unthinkable. Markham’s idealism was far-reaching. The pit employed two men whose sole job was to find faults with inhabitants’ behaviour. Woe betide any woman who beat rugs before 8am. Her husband would be sent for, even if he was 600ft underground, be questioned by pit managers and given a stern warning. Initially, no pubs or shops were allowed as everything was supplied through the Brodsworth Main Mining Company. Markham only relented his booze ban when Woodlands Hall, Thellusson’s summer house on the rim of The Park, was given to the people as a working men’s club. It still exists.

The model village of 653 houses was complete by 1913, but as the size of the coal seam became apparent, so more workers were required and additional estates were added over the following ten years. Lacking the wide avenues and grand spaces of Houfton’s original setting, the later developments of Highfields, Woodlands East and Woodlands Central were still high-standard affairs. Village construction was rounded off in 1924 with the huge Brodsworth Miners’ Welfare Ground, a recreation area consisting of the Welfare Hall with its state-of-the-art sprung dance floor, a football pitch (today home to Brodsworth Welfare in the Northern Counties East League), a cricket pitch with pavilion, cycling track, crown-green bowling strips and bandstand. Obesity was never a consideration in Woodlands. There wasn’t time to be fat.

This year, Woodlands is quietly celebrating its centenary. The pit’s now a fading memory, but the model village remains a national treasure, a secret part of Britain’s rich industrial past. You’ll find no Tourist Information kiosk along the shops, no heritage trail to follow, nor are there any postcards to buy, but in Woodlands’ favour there’s a Cooplands selling mega-doorstop sandwiches at a reasonable £2.80, Frank’s do a nice drop of fish and chips and barber shop Dumville’s has been offering New Order-style short back and sides since 1952 – current price £5.

For Woodlands, the worst times are over. People are talking and giving opinions. A Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council-sponsored facelift is imminent and former glories may be restored. The “top shops” along the Great North Road are little changed since the First World War, but DMBC’s Masterplan aims to improve the shopping experience, lifting perceptions of the village. More importantly, Houfton’s wide-open spaces will be used to their maximum potential again as trees, picnic areas, parks and cycle tracks will be installed. Work should be complete by 2014.

“I’ve got a vested interest in this village,” says Barry Hayes. “I paid £28,000 for this house in ’93. It’s now worth 80. I’d like it to be worth 120, but I’d also like the whole village to be on the up. We’ve got a very good community here. The spirit didn’t die, it went into a coma and it’s been on a life-support machine. It’s now coming off life-support.”

Gardner agrees: “I won’t say Woodlands is there but neither would I say Woodlands is still at the bottom of the heap. There’s a long way to go. Better people than I have spent their lives – given their lives – serving this community and the fruits of their labour are obvious. I see people who actually care. That’s one of the real strengths Yorkshire people have. Deep down, they do care.”

The Woodlands May Festival, an annual fair organised by The Brodsworth Informer, takes place on Sunday 27th and Monday 28th May 2007